Evidently, John Sutherland makes a living writing about literature, so I was surprised by the obtuseness of his piece in Curiosities of Literature entitled “Milk of Kindness; Grapes of Wrath”. Operating on the assumption that Steinbeck meant to be showing us a poor woman saving a poor man, Sutherland informs us that this would have been impossible given the volume of milk produced by malnourished women and the amount of milk required by malnourished men.
I cannot imagine reading the Grapes of Wrath’s ending in the way Sutherland has, and I doubt that’s because I have only one degree in literature among my post-name letters, and that a bachelor’s. Similarly, I cannot imagine that I am the first, last, or only person to read Steinbeck’s closing scene as I do, but I’m enjoying chewing this over in writing, so I’m going to add to the pile without even exploring it first. As my maternal grandmother used to ask, “How ‘bout them apples?”
Back to the chewing – the more likely explanation for the former failure of my imagination is, I think, that unlike Mr. Sutherland, I have struggled with poverty for the whole of my life, and I lactated continuously for three years of that time. Mr. Sutherland’s misstep was clear before he got to listing milliliters of milk when he summed up Steinbeck’s thesis as “only the poor can give sustenance to the poor.”
Even without the filter of experience, I cannot imagine how the Grapes of Wrath can be read as tendering that message when it so obviously and emphatically and repeatedly SHOUTS a similar one that differs in one essential verb choice: “only the poor WILL give sustenance to the poor.”
From that verb of being springs more pathos than Mr. Sutherland is properly prepared to receive. To those among Steinbeck’s readers familiar with both poverty and lactation, Rose of Sharon is fully aware that what little milk she has to offer will not save the strange and starving man anymore than it would have saved her infant. She is fully aware that making such an offering from her own depleted body may mean that she joins him in his descent into death. So is her mother. Little Ruthie may know, too, on some level, and her protest may spring from that. More likely, though, she is there to break our hearts even more in the scene by being as-yet-innocent of the cruel realities with which her mother and sister and all their sistren have too long been intimates.
All of my life, I have heard poor folks pass this bipartite truth amongst ourselves:
- if you’re starving, and you go to someone you know who’s always had a full pantry and has a half-full pantry now, they’ll turn you away saying they don’t have enough to share;
- if you’re starving, and you go to someone you know who’s always seemed to find themselves on the shit side of capitalism and has only a half a bag of dried beans in their pantry, they’ll apologize for not having more to share while they divvy up the beans.
The phrasing may’ve been a bit different depending on whether we were poor folks talking over the crack-of-fucking-dawn shift at the greasy spoon or the crack-of-fucking-dawn shift in the cornfields or the middle-of-the-fucking-night shift at the hospital while trying to earn a degree, but the gist was the same. Poor people have compassion for poor people. No one else does.
The best the rest can offer us is pity, and Steinbeck is guilty of that in moments. Fortunately, he transcends that resentment/justification cycle more than once in his writings about the lives of those of us literature would generally rather consign to the workhouse or raise up through glittering meritocratic tokenizing. The final scene of the Grapes of Wrath is one of those transcendences.
Rose of Sharon and her mother, like countless heroes of literature, are risking ultimate sacrifices because they are the sort of folks who do what is right no matter what. That separates them from the well-fed hordes who spit on their suffering. That nourishes them when the lack of material sustenance is such that the grave looms. Their choices in the context of their shared and sure knowledge is what brought me to tears reading their final scene the first and each successive time I revisited Steinbeck’s transcendence – not of their poverty and suffering, but of his & his ilk’s usual patronizing condescension toward both.
On another level, Rosasharn and her mother are also of people who have made “a way out of no way“ for as long as humans have permitted inequitable distribution of resources and before when there just genuinely wasn’t enough because Nature said, “Drought!” or “Flood!” or “Early Hard Frost!” On that level, their martyrdom is tempered by their perhaps even more heroic capacity to spark the sort of resistance to the inevitable that sometimes pays off and is always better than passive resignation thereto. If, after all, both the strange and starving man and Rosasharn are on the same road as the latter’s child, why shouldn’t they choose to face that fate with generosity and compassion, wrapped in the “comfort” left them? When the alternative is facing down the same fate grasping and alone, denying Rosasharn or even the starving man conscious agency is untenable.
Yes, perhaps the heroic martyrdom of Rose of Sharon* and her mother nudges Steinbeck over into a representation that Dorothy Allison might rightfully critique as flattening us into The Deserving Poor. Still, she forgave him, and I do, too. Not to mention, a reader can’t even get there if they’ve mired themselves in the unsupported thought that Rose of Sharon is acting with a certainty that she’ll both save the man and survive herself. I am both incensed and heartbroken to see such literary transcendence so misapprehended and diminished in a book (Sutherland’s) already read by more folks who won’t recognize the crime than this blog post ever will be. I’m not surprised, though. Ain’t like it’s the first time.
*Her name is “Rose of Sharon” in a book titled “Grapes of Wrath”, but she didn’t know she was making of herself nourishment?! The original audience for Steinbeck’s novel at the time of publication would’ve been intimately familiar with their bible, even if the Song of Solomon might’ve raised some blushes.